Has Covid sent gender equality backwards?

A Women and Equalities Committee session heard yesterday about the impact of Covid in the childcare, social care and hair and beauty sectors while Flexpo Business hosted a discussion on gender equality and the coronavirus.

Image representing career progression for women


Childcare patterns are changing and likely to keep changing as parents look to place their children in nurseries nearer to home in the future, a Women and Equalities Committee session heard yesterday.

Liz Bayram, Chief Executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said there was already movement with regard to the types of childcare service families were looking for, for instance, many wanted childcare that was nearer their homes rather than their workplace because of the growth in homeworking.

She spoke of the financial challenges facing the childcare sector, saying there was a fear that if more parents were made redundant when the furlough scheme ends that many would take their children out of nursery or rely more on free childcare entitlements which had historically been underfunded by Government. Underfunding had meant nurseries who relied on free entitlements were often struggling to make ends meet.

Numbers of children in nurseries were still affected by Covid due to continuing parental anxiety about the virus and staffing due to lack of access to testing, said Bayram. There were concerns that parents may still be feeling anxious about childcare early next year when the Government will base its funding entitlements on the numbers of children in nurseries rather than on the number who were registered before Covid.

Childcare providers were already in a parlous financial situation before Covid and Bayram said this was due to the lack of a long-term strategy from Government. Covid had exacerbated this with nurseries now facing local lockdowns and having to refund parents for care they could not provide due to temporary closures.

Bayram spoke of the impact of low pay on the profession and the fact that many more qualified, experienced staff over 50 were leaving the sector. She called on the Government to put a strategy in place for how childcare fits into the economic recovery after the pandemic, given its core importance for working parents.

Bayram criticised inconsistencies in government guidance, for instance, schools were given home testing kits, but not nurseries. She said the biggest challenge childcare providers faced over the Covid guidance, apart from the changing advice on furlough, was that they lacked the extra resources to deal with implementing it. Another problem was that many childcare providers were unable to benefit from the financial support provided to small businesses.

She also highlighted the complexity of the free entitlements and the fact that they don’t cover the school holiday period and warned that a rise in informal care, if parents started using it to cover full working days, could affect children’s well being and safety.

Beauty and social care

The Women and Equalities Committee also heard from another sector where women pre-dominate – the health and beauty sector, 95% of whose workers are female. Victoria Brownlie, director of policy and public affairs at the National Hair and Beauty Federation, outlined the difficult position businesses faced. The sector had been in a growth period before Covid. It was among the last to reopen and was on its knees in the same way as the hospitality and retail sector, but with less support. Forty one per cent of businesses in the sector did not know if they would be open by Christmas, she said. The outlook was “bleak”, with 40% saying their earnings were not enough to cover their outgoings.

Brownlie said the sector needed a voucher scheme similar to the eat out to help out scheme,  a VAT reduction, an extension of business rates relief, the extension of the furlough and income support schemes and diversification and training grants so workers could reskill in order to take a temporary break from the industry until it was able to function properly again. She also called for a student loan-type scheme for repaying business loans.

The last speaker was Mary Robertson, senior policy officer at the TUC, who spoke about the impact of Covid on social and hleath care. The sector, again one dominated by women, was already facing a staff crisis before Covid, she said. Indeed a new report from the Commons public accounts committee says a third of nurses are considering leaving the NHS in the next year due mainly to pay issues and overwork and warned that government plans to meet a pledge for 50,000 more nurses by 2025 were not convincing.

Robertson said low pay and lack of time to care for people were the main reasons people were leaving social care. This put more pressure on remaining staff, leading to burnout and more people leaving. She highlighted a range of problems, including lack of pay progression in social care [care workers’ pay only rose by 15p an hour after five years in the job], job insecurity [around a quarter of social care workers were on zero hours], high turnover of staff and “an accountability deficit” due to a fragmented care system and she said many of the social care and NHS staff, most of whom were women, had been left out of the public sector pay rise announced earlier in the year.

Flexpo Business

The Committee session coincided with a Flexpo Business event yesterday on the impact of Covid on gender equality. Joeli Brierley from Pregnant Then Screwed spoke about the “really detrimental” effect of Covid on gender equality, saying it had exacerbated challenges that already existed around discrimination, childcare and gender-based assumptions. Women were being forced out of their jobs due to childcare issues, she said, with the Government showing “complete inertia” and just expecting employers who were under immense economic pressure to be understanding.  She said that in her experience it seemed that there were more companies that don’t care about gender equality than do. She had heard anecdotally of diversity and inclusion managers being fired and HR webinars being held on how to change people’s employment contracts. “There is an explosion of change going on which will negatively impact women in particular,” she said.

Virginia Herlihy of How do you do it said the one potential ray of light was that flexible working had been shown to work as it was an important enabler of gender equality. Anthony Fitzpatrick, global employee experience and employment policy lead at Aviva, said the narrative on flexible working had changed and it was important to maintain momentum and keep it on the agenda. Embedding it in the culture through role modelling, continual references and consistent messaging was vital.

Brierley was also critical of the Government’s decision to suspend gender pay reporting, saying it was the worst time to do this as this was precisely the time we needed good data on what companies were doing with regard to gender equality. She added that there was a need for companies to listen more to their employees through networking groups which had a direct line to the CEO and through tracking maternal retention and progression rates and analysing the results.

Fitzpatrick said that, in addition to line manager training on flexible working, it was important to triage any conflicts and resolve any conflicts, ensuring both parties could see where the other was coming from. Herlihy said this kind of approach should be applied at home too to encourage better conversations around gender equality, even if they were uncomfortable.

In a second session on gender equality, Jane Van Zyl from Working Families said her organisation’s helpline had seen a huge increase in calls since Covid, including from mums being told they couldn’t work from home and dads not feeling able to even begin a conversation about working from home with their employers. Recently there had been more queries about employers imposing changes in hours on employees with no consideration for childcare issues, such as the lack of wraparound care.


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